Tuesday 29 March 2016

Taking Note by Tracy Chevalier

Our March guest is Tracy Chevalier, who has been here before! We are delighted to welcome her back on the publication of her new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard.
Photo credit: Nina Sobin
Tracy Chevalier has written eight historical novels, including At the Edge of the Orchard and The Last Runaway, as well as the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has also conceived of and edited the short story collection, Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, and is a creative partner with the Brontë Parsonage, where she has curated the exhibition “Charlotte Great and Small”, in celebration of Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary. A native of Washington, DC, in the 1980s she moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son. She has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Tracy is a Trustee of the British Library, President of the Royal Literary Fund, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. 


I have a love-hate relationship with my research notebooks.

Several months ago I sent a box of stuff to Oberlin College, my alma mater in Ohio, which I have donated my papers to. I had agreed to send them research materials, drafts and correspondence, starting with two novels, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – an early book and a later one, to give the archivists a chance to see what sort of issues would arise in including them in their collection. This is an interesting topic, especially concerning the rise in the use of online sources and computers generally. But I still use pen and paper alongside a computer, I like to photocopy things, and I have a lot of boxes of physical materials in my attic.

There were extensive papers for Remarkable Creatures – I had learned to keep drafts by then, aware that they might be of interest. I write longhand, you see, then type it into the computer, print out the draft, and revise on the printed copy. Over and over. There are usually 5-6 drafts per book.

When I wrote Pearl Earring in 1998, however, I threw away drafts, and there were few emails. All there really was of substance was this:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring research notebook; I glued a copy of the painting inside the front cover so it wouldn’t get bashed, and no one would know what I was writing about!

It’s funny: even this notebook the size of my hand was only half full of notes. I wrote that novel in a state of grace, taking in my research and just knowing it, without writing much down. I wrote each day on scrap paper, typed it into the computer, and threw away the scrap.

Still, that notebook was special, and it pained me to let it go. The last few days before FedEx arrived to take it off to Oberlin I carried it with me constantly, touching it, flipping through it, rereading all the notes, and feeling awful. Only when my husband suggested scanning it did I cheer up. At least I could look at it digitally any time I liked. Not the same, I know, but it meant I handed over the box to the FedEx man without crying – though I was still uneasy until the archivist at Oberlin emailed to say it had safely arrived.

I love the notebooks I take notes in during research for my novels. I choose them carefully before I begin, matching the look with the subject: burgundy velvet for the medieval The Lady and the Unicorn, a marbled effect for the fossils in Remarkable Creatures, green notebooks for At the Edge of the Orchard, my new novel featuring trees in 19th-century America.
Green notebooks for research; red notebooks for writing.

In fact, the last time I wrote for The History Girls I even included this photo of the notebooks, artfully displayed:

I like to look at them sitting on a shelf in my office – though they will slowly head across the Atlantic to Oberlin, which will always make me a little sad, digital scans or not.

But I don’t actually like to look in them. Whenever I’m writing a novel and arrive at a point where I’m not sure about a detail and have to check it in the research notebook, I inwardly groan. It is so exhausting reading through the notes, and often takes hours of sifting to find what I’m looking for.

Recently when I was updating my website for At the Edge of the Orchard, I had to dig out information about Johnny Appleseed – an American folk hero known for planting apple trees in Ohio and Indiana, who plays a small but crucial role in the book.

I got so fed up picking through the copious notes I took while reading biographies of him that I actually went online for a moment to find the details there. (Then I came to my senses and went back to my notebook.)

Research notes are a distillation of what I read or look at and think is important. When I choose to write something down, it means it may be a crucial historical detail I will use later. Of course, often – usually – I don’t use it. I probably research 10 times as much as I use. But when I write it down, I’ve made a judgement call: Keep this, you will learn from it and you may need it.

Going back through the notes is like reading one epigram after another – all very rich. Too rich. Often as I look for that one simple answer to a question, I discover a barrage of juicy details I really ought to add into the manuscript. Of course, research isn’t like that. It sinks in, and you should only use the details that come naturally. You can’t shoehorn them in afterwards. I have done that once or twice, and it showed.

Often I think of Rose Tremain and Jim Crace when I’m trawling through a notebook. Rose said of historical research: Take notes, but when you start writing, set aside the notebook. Jim went a step further: Do the research but don’t write anything down.

I can see what Rose is getting at: with the best kind of research you are absorbing it naturally and it will stay inside you and emerge naturally too, finding its way into the story at the right point without you having to force it or look it up.

But Jim’s advice is a step too far for me. Writing it down is a process that makes information concrete so I can absorb it. And I have to write it with pen and paper; a keyboard and screen won’t do. (I am writing this blog by hand too.) I admit it: at the British Library I glance over at the people tapping way on their laptops and secretly feel superior. “Huh – call that note-taking?” I expect they (and there are many more of them than there are of me) look at me pityingly as some sort of antiquarian, or luddite, or both.

I don’t care. I sat in the British Library with two 19th-century books on tending fruit trees, and learned to graft apple trees from them, taking notes and making drawings:

It worked for me. Just don’t ask me to reread all those notes!


Carol McGrath said...

I pretty much follow this process. I have so many notebooks for research and I do have to hunt to find it. I now put titles of research areas in the flyleaf of each. With writing I do both, longhand and in word. I do think there is lots to be said for long hand. Mind you, I don't think anyone would ever want to preserve my notes or drafts. Still, I won't throw them away. And yes, writing notes down does distil information. I absorb it better.

This was a delightful post. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I was sitting in the Bodleian library with my green notebook taking notes on a 1959 biography of a French resistance fighter yesterday and came home to read this wonderful blog. 90% of that book I read was hopeless in terms of material for my new book but goodness I enjoyed reading it and the notes I took will help to inform my background knowledge. I've recently converted to Leuchturm notebooks as they have page numbers and an index. Maybe a bit too much for a brilliant novelist like you, Tracy, but it works for this non-fic historian. Thank you for sharing you notebook stories.

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for this fascinating post, Tracy. I always write by hand too, and then type and make changes many times - never keep my manuscripts, though. I like the idea of you making handwritten notes in the British Library and secretly feeling superior. Last time I was there I'd come to find a long 16th century letter, which I copied out in shorthand - and yes, I felt the same way!

adele said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you!